A couple of weeks ago I tried to write a post about the small group of artists* who I thought had always produced work that was, at worst, good. That make sense? Good. As John Darnielle put it “Why do good things not only have to stop being good but turn to utter shit?”. It was going to take list form and I was going to write about their work….
The Red House Painters – who’s Mark Kozelek made my list.
But then I started thinking; what I found more interesting was not why these artists had continually pleased me but why everyone else had done at least something I considered to be below par. I had a few ideas as to why this was but nothing concrete; People are put under pressure. People lose their initial spark. What made them good was their age. People work in a collaborative medium and the “chemistry” changes. A person’s relevance to the times wains…
So I gave up. It was also pointed out to me that this was a very selfish way of thinking. What did these musicians, writers, directors, painters, you name it owe me? And isn’t taste completely subjective anyway? “Fair enough and yes,” I thought.
But it still niggled at me. Wouldn’t every creator of art admit, in their heart of hearts, that some of their work has been below par? I know I’ve put out my fair share of shit and barely anything that hits even par.
And then a couple of days ago it hit me with an unusual clarity: people only have a finite amount of things that they can say (in art at least). People have something they want to say in a medium, perfect it as best they can and then… then they have to change. A band can’t release the same song over and over, an author use the same plot – they have to say something different or find a new way of saying the same thing. Eventually this becomes impossible. Even Shakespeare wouldn’t have been able, given another thirty years, to write another thirty completely different plays of the quality of Hamlet – but don’t let that stop you cybernetic Shakespeare!
What was once fun and easy becomes a slog. I think of the band Suede, who started off pretty well but eventually released a song with the rhyming couplet, She lives in a house/She’s as stupid as a mouse.
But why should someone even be expected to keep producing new ideas and art for their whole life? I like to think of the days when the craft of art, the playing and singing, the painting, the acting even, was seen as more important than the creation of it. Back way over yonder folk singers used to sing other people’s songs, the Sistine Chapel’s roof was painted on commission and even the aforementioned (non cybernetic) Shakespeare was an actor as well as play-write. Were things “better” then? Not really – we have a whole wealth, possibly too much, of art to enjoy now and if people weren’t encouraged and expected to create for themselves this wouldn’t be the case. But do we need to listen to anything Paul McCartney did after 1982? Or more importantly does this stuff detract from what he did with The Beatles?
So what’s my point you may be wondering? Well I don’t expect anyone to be consistent any more,. I’m just going to try and enjoy what good there is in the world. To take the flip on Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crud), 10% of everything must be good.
John November 11
*as in people who create any kind of art. So painters, sculpters, musicians, writers, n’ that.
As So Claw and Sour Crow are two albums recorded at the same time, Max Broady decided to revisit one of his favourite bands’, Guns ‘N’ Roses recorded-at-the-same-time two album opus…
I first became aware of Guns N’ Roses through Matthew Meadows, a badass kid in the year above me at primary school who constantly wore the Use Your Illusion T-shirt. This was a bold statement at the time, especially in such a disciplinarian school as mine was, and it really stuck in my mind. But it wasn’t what the Gn’R* shirt said about Meadows; it was quite the opposite. As soon as I associated Gn’R with the notoriously troublesome Meadows kid (whose younger sister was probably my first crush, incidentally), I had them marked as a dangerous, corrupting influence. And when lil’ Ed Norton listened to ‘You Could Be Mine’ in Terminator 2 (a film which itself had a massive formative effect on me) that sealed the deal – they became everything mum had warned me about, and they both scared and fascinated me. (Around the same time my cousin Geoff, who I idolised, had a Public Enemy T-shirt, but that went way over my head – I had no idea who or what they were until much later. Between Gn’R and Public Enemy I don’t know who my mum would rather I had listened to).
For the time being I could happily avoid Gn’R, but as soon as secondary school came around I felt for the first time the pressure to fit in. This was the early 90s, just at the time when Nirvana were supposedly consigning Gn’R and all their spandex-clad hair-metalling chums to the commercial waste bin. Of course, as an eleven year old kid I made no such distinction, and liking both Gn’R and Nirvana was not mutually exclusive, it was mandatory. But while liking Nirvana was easy – I took to Nevermind as soon as the drums came in on ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – I couldn’t get on with Gn’R, though that may well be because the only album of theirs I heard for ages was the largely indefensible covers record, “The Spaghetti Incident?”
Among my peers Gn’R were cool primarily because they swore a lot, and admitting to not liking them would have been akin to admitting that I harboured a crush on our Biology teacher, Mr Taylor (aka Cheese n’ Onion). So speaking out against Gn’R was simply not an option, although at least they no longer frightened me. Once Gn’R were no longer associated with the foreboding spectre of Matthew Meadows but with the air-guitaring gurns of my harmless new metalhead friends their capacity to threat evaporated.
And I didn’t have to pretend for long. Within a few months Oasis came along and for the first time, I guess, I found my own musical identity. So Gn’R, and Nirvana too, were quickly dismissed as just too infantile for my tres sophisticated twelve-year-old tastes, and they receded from my mind as something vaguely embarrassing that I wanted to forget and erase from history, like the ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ pyjamas I probably should have stopped wearing a bit earlier than I actually did.
But Gn’R resolutely resurfaced in my consciousness some five years later, just as I was coming to the end of my uncomfortable ‘early Manics phase’ (mum’s eyeliner never went with my ginger hair – it was always bound to end in literal, not just metaphorical, tears). It was the first time I’d properly heard Appetite for Destruction, and, in a new context where Generation Terrorists was an acceptable record, it made sense. A kind of inverse snobbery took over, whereby anyone who couldn’t see that it flat-out rocked, man, was just being way too precious. I even bought a vinyl copy from Lancaster market with the original cover of the robot raping a woman that got banned for some reason. It came with a tasteful pull-out sticker sheet. Nice.
But for all their MTV-saturated ubiquity, I didn’t come across Use Your Illusion One and Two until I was 18, specifically via a dodgy street market in Turkey, where I’d gone for a ‘lads’ holiday after my A-levels (Alex and Joe argued over who was going to buy which album; Joe won out and bought Two). By this time my brief Gn’R renascence was on the wane and I was running out of patience with them, so it was probably not the best time to be introduced to two records that each topped 75 minutes. I remember marvelling at how Axl sang the chorus of Dylan’s sparse, plaintive ballad ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ over no less than three different octaves, only for the song to collapse into a protracted phone conversation breakdown of epic WTF proportions, before the whooping gospel choir crashed the party for the rousing finale. I don’t remember much else, but that pretty much tells you all you need to know.
* Punctuation pedants may point out that there should be an apostrophe before the n, as well as after, but that’s how they wrote it. Still, that’s nothing compared to what they came up with later: GN’F’NR’s [sic]. Hell, even their abbreviations were ridiculously overblown. Self-editing was not their strong point.
Max, Jun 11
I was 17 when I first heard Neutral Milk Hotel. Adam introduced them to me, and in fact our friendship was created through them – me discussing the band with him the next time I saw him after his passing remark about how he liked them. In fact this band wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for that conversation.
I didn’t think too much of them at first. They were interesting enough but they didn’t really grab me. If I thought of them at all it was as a kind of outre indie band with a smattering of eastern european influences. I doubt I thought of them enough to articulate it that way.
But they crept up on me. After 6 months, I was besotted with In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.I was listening to the song “Communist Daughter” daily on a mix tape I’d made myself.
I’d obsessed over albums, bands and song before, so this wasn’t too different. Back when I was 14 I even listened over and over to Oasis’s Magic Pie (a truly, truly dreadful song) – I spent many an hour considering the faux profundity of such lines as “there are but a thousand days preparing for a thousand years”.
It was over the next couple of years I became, I’m afraid to say, fanatical about Neutral Milk Hotal and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. As a very brief overview that album is a very personal concept album in part about Anne Frank; according to Pandora – the music genome project that categorises every popular song iver- it has folk instrumenatation and great lyrics. So there you go.
I began to listen to everything NMH had ever done daily, almost as a ritual. I listened to their first album, On Avery Island. I listened to early tapes. I listened to bootleg live recordings. I listened to the unreleased demos that had begun leaking online. I studied album artwork for clues. I read every singles interview that Jeff Mangum (Mr. Neutral Milk Hotel) had ever done.
My life at the time was very tempstuos and Jaff Mangum’s songs had become a lifeline (note to self – double use of life there, sloppy, sloppy writing). Like many an indie kid I had latched onto the wonderful, heartfelt lyrics sometimes straight forward ,”how strange it is to be anything at all”, sometimes opaque, “when you were young were the king of carrot flowers.
The album became an anchor for me.
An important thing to mention is that shortly after In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was released in 1998 on Merge Records, Jeff Mangum disappeared from public view, only surfacing occasionally for a period of 10 years. The record sold well, very well for an indie record, but was essentially a non mainstream album. Due to this and the subject matter the album soon became a cult item.
For years I was so excited when I read anything about Neutral Milk Hotal. Any sign of action. I was an evangelical tryign to convert any one I met to the cause. When I met anyone else who had heard of them I wanted to jump for joy. But this changed. I got older. My obsession lessened. I listened to NMH less and less. Indie discos started playing their tracks.People were going to gigs in homemade Neutral Milk Hotel tshirts. And I started to listen to them less and less. I still loved them but I no longer lived and died by them. I listened to other things. I no longer went on their message board every day or every week or every month.
But.. I occasionally still dreamed of Jeff Mangum. When I was obsessed he started appearing in my dreams. A faintly messianic figure, he was always distant. I wanted to talk to him – make him normal and a friend of mine but never managed it. He always remained out of reach.
And this continued in the years after. I would still have these dreams were he would turn up even if I hadn’t listened to his band in months. I dreamt of him the way other people dream of Jesus; or John Lennon; or Justin bieber.
I’m writing about this because I had another one of these dreams a couple of days a go.
Jeff Mangum is playing gigs in the UK next uear. I’m going. I am an adult. I know he’s a normal man. My friends have spoken to him in a bar. And yet… my subconscious has internalised him. He’s become part of me and represents something. I don’t know what but I think he might still be popping up in my dreams unitl the day I die, when I can’t even remember what Two Headed Boy Pt Two sounds like any more…
John, November 11
Recently I’ve been revisiting and rather enjoying the two Sufjan Stevens albums dedicated to American states: Michigan and Illinois. You may well have heard them, but if not I’d highly recommend them. There is much to be enjoyed beyond Sufjan’s admirable pedagogic intent. You have to credit his chutzpah, though you sense he has bitten off more than he can reasonably chew: he still has 48 to go, if you include Delaware, so he needs to pick up the pace a little. Furthermore, recent non-geographically-themed releases seem to be distracting him somewhat from the Herculean task he has set himself.
Anyway, the little man’s big ambition has inspired me, and I’ve begun to plan a series of albums dedicated to England’s green and pleasant counties. Whilst significantly smaller and generally less populated than America’s states, there are almost as many, so it’s fair to say I’ve got about as much work to do. As of the most recent amendments in 2009 there are currently 48 geographical or ‘ceremonial’ counties of England. I didn’t know, for instance, that the City of Bristol is a county – who knows what other informative pearls my research may uncover.
Like Sufjan himself, I intend to start the series with my place of birth: Cumbria, the third largest county geographically yet one of the most sparsely populated. There are clear parallels: like Michigan (aka the Great Lake State), Cumbria is famous for the Lake District national park. I’m hoping to interest the Cumbria tourist board in providing some funding. Here are some of the song ideas I have so far:
An epic opening fanfare celebrating Kendal Mint Cake, the sugary confection favoured by mountaineers. I’ll thread in a bit of history about its invention and the emergence of the ‘big three’ manufacturers (my dad favours Romney’s). It sports a slightly tangential middle 8 recalling the fateful occasion when South Lakeland Leisure Centre changed its name to the more familiar Kendal Leisure Centre.
A jaunty piece in 5/4 time recommending some mountain walks that offer breathtaking views of the Lakes. Did you know that Cumbria contains every peak in England over 3,000 feet above sea level? I might pepper this song with an illuminating autobiographical anecdote of how I climbed the Fairfield Horseshoe this summer.
A baroque harpsichord-led waltz explaining the attractions to be found at Muncaster Castle, winner of the Cumbria Tourism ‘Large Attraction’ award 2011: it features a cracking owl sanctuary, a less than demanding maze and ‘heron happy hour’ at 4:30pm daily when the local wild herons show up on the lawn for feeding. Lovely stuff.
Obligatory ode to the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. I expect the lyric will borrow heavily from that “I wandered lonely as a cloud” poem. I may use the recent floods in Cockermouth as a metaphor for how Wordsworth flooded the English language with nice poems.
To the tune of ‘John Henry’ this folky number lists the achievements of notable art critic, progressive social thinker and philanthropist who spent his last years in Coniston. I gloss over the frankly unfounded accusations of paedophilia.
A singalong romp that draws on a chant sung by supporters of Carlisle United FC, who I briefly supported as a teenager and occasionally still refer to with affection as ‘the lads’. The first verse focuses on the remarkable statistic that The Foxes have won the Football League Trophy more times than any other team, while the second verse is devoted to Rory Delap who spent his early career at Carlisle honing his trademark ‘long throw in’. Delap continues to taunt defences with his long-range missiles for Stoke City.
A homely banjo tune (a duet with Sufjan himself) which takes its cue from the song off Illinois where Sufjan audaciously makes every line rhyme with ‘Decatur’. For my Cumbrian version I have substituted Decatur for Whitehaven, a small coastal town near the Sellafield nuclear power plant. Rhymes I have so far include: shaven, raven, craven, misbehavin’, brazen (half rhyme).
This segues seamlessly into…
An instrumental interlude paying tribute to the brave folk of Whitehaven, the town chosen to pilot the switchover from analogue to digital television. At the end of the 18-month pilot period 81% of the Whitehaven residents interviewed claimed they experienced no problems with the switchover. Following the successful completion of the pilot digital television was rolled out nationally to the enjoyment of television audiences everywhere.
A loving ode to two famous scientists who lived for a time in Kendal, now commemorated by a blue plaque: John Dalton, sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of Modern Chemistry’ (though personally I think that honour should actually go to Anton Lavoisier); and Sir Arthur Eddington, Einstein’s chum who led an expedition which provided the first experimental evidence for the theory of general relativity.
Once I’ve completed this I plan to work on Yorkshire, a double album.
Max, November 2011
It’s funny the route your thoughts sometimes take; when thinking about one thing you can have a realisation about something else.
I realised today that my life had actually improved since losing my iPod.
“You know what?” I thought, “I actually appreciate travelling more now.” I can hear the sounds of the everyday, my footsteps, birds, trains rattling by, and I genuinely appreciate them.
I realised that I had been using my iPod as background noise, which not only dulled the world around me, but dulled my love for music itself.
I lost my iPod whilst travelling to see Sheffield Wednesday beat Notts County at the formerly mighty Hillsborough and felt like crying when I found out. A good day totally, totally ruined.
But no, two months later, whenever I do listen to music I find myself thinking, “This is amazing!”, and appreciating things that I wouldn’t usually listen to. Listening to The Verlaines superlative song “CD, Jimmy Jazz and me” last night I realised how badly I wanted to listen to the rest of their back catalogue (which I had recently acquired).
But, alas, I could not, having only a limited time every day to listen to music. If only I had my iPod! I could listen to them on my seemingly never ending journeys to primary schools in West Yorkshire.
And that’s when it struck me. It was the desire for the music that was the truly improtant thing. When I had my whole music collection at my fingertips I would often find myself flipping listlessly from song to song, never settling on anything for more than a minute or two, and nothing satisfying me. and now I couldn’t listen to anything and I desperately wanted to.
Thoughts returned to me that I hadn’t had for years. What would the world be worth if everything was instaneous and at our fingertips? If we never had to leave a room because everything was there in the blink of an eye? It might seem that the world’s going, and for those of us have to spend a lot of time commuting, it actually might seem like a dream.
But I was reminded of a short story, possibly by Kurt Vonnegut, possibly not, based on H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”, about a someone who travels to the future and encounters a man who wears a suit that does everything for them. The man explains that there is no need for them to have any possessions or do anything as the suit does it for them. They had no need to read or see the world as they have all the knowledge they needed grafted onto their brains at birth. The time traveller then goes back to his own time and vows never to come to the future.
Whilst I am feeling, and even disliking, the yearning for experience I realised it opened up other things in me. Trees suddenly seemed more beautiful; maybe because it was Autumn and a sunny day, maybe because I was actually looking at them.
I also thought of a Brave New World, in which everyone must be made to feel satisfied but never excited or wanting more.
In some ways I feel for children who get every thing they want. In fact I feel for anyone who gets everything they want. It seems to dull the senses and kill appetites. And yet, I still plan to get another iPod as soon as I can get one. Ah, the problems of being alive!
I also thought, strangely, of Jonathan Ross, who seemed to encapsulate how powerful desire for something can be, especially when you’re a child, in a televised interview concerning when he and his brother used to talk endlessly at night about how they wanted a portable travel fan they saw in the back of a magazine. A prosaic memory perhaps, but one that is much more fulfilling and thought of than when he actually got said fan.
As The Wednesday Club so memorably sang, “It’s not a requirement to dream but it helps.”
John, November 11